Montana extinguishes career

April 19, 1995|By Tom Friend | Tom Friend,New York Times News Service

SAN FRANCISCO -- Joe Montana yesterday surpassed Chinatown as a San Francisco tourist attraction. More than two years since he threw his last pass as a San Francisco 49er, he stood in front of 20,000 hero worshipers yesterday and retired from professional football.

The crowd chanted, "One more year, one more year" -- even if it meant him quarterbacking the Kansas City Chiefs.

"Hardest day of his life," said Montana's father, Joseph Sr., whose son would have quit football at age 7 if he had let him. "Probably mine, too."

Montana has no cartilage in his left knee and four children afraid to jump on him with all of their might, so he quit once and for all after 16 seasons. He is 38, has his own airplane in a hangar and television networks waving jobs at him, so he will not be bored.

It was a badly kept secret, but he said he finally decided to retire when he found not a single urge to work out. "It felt like a job, and that's when I told myself it would be time," he said.

He leaves with four Super Bowl rings, with a reputation as the game's greatest quarterback, with teammates in envy and with one former teammate obviously estranged: current 49ers quarterback Steve Young, who was absent yesterday.

The mayor of San Francisco, Frank Jordan, handed Montana the key to the city -- causing Montana to say to the throng, "Better lock your doors" -- but Montana said the legitimate keys to his career were his workaholic parents and the foresight of his former coach, Bill Walsh.

During a pause in the action yesterday, a fan droned, "We love you, Joe," and Walsh, the master of ceremonies, responded dutifully: "You weren't saying that in 1979. Then you were saying, 'Where'd you get this guy who looks like a Swedish place-kicker?' "

Montana was merely a third-round draft choice from Notre Dame in 1979, considered weak of arm and lacking muscularity. It was the theme he had heard since his pre-teens, and it was why he almost quit his midget team in Monongahela, Pa.

"One day he wanted to quit," Joe Sr. said yesterday, "and when I got home at 5 o'clock I told him, 'Get your uniform, you're going back to practice.' I told him, 'I don't care if you don't play or not, but you're going to practice.' I don't think you should quit, because if you look back and do that once in your life, it's easy to quit a second time."

Young Montana returned, but played linebacker until someone had the grand idea of putting him under center.

"He came around end one day," his father said, "and a kid came to tackle him. He stuck his head down, hit the kid, and his helmet splintered. My wife, she said, 'I think the game's too dangerous for him. I think he should quit.' So, I went out and bought him a pro helmet."

The 49ers' gain was the rest of the league's loss. Montana turned what Walsh yesterday called a "derelict" franchise into a power with his succinctly timed passes. Montana remembered the early disorganized years, when the 49ers were on a budget. "I remember at one of our Florida hotels, I ran across a cockroach bigger than Dexter Carter," he said.

But times turned headier. In fact, Montana yesterday named his two all-time memorable 49er plays -- his arching pass to Dwight Clark that defeated Dallas in the 1982 NFC championship game and his pass to John Taylor that won Super Bowl XXIII.

And, fittingly, Clark, a current 49er executive whose relationship with Montana had been strained since the trade to Kansas City two seasons ago, was present yesterday -- along with Taylor -- to squeeze Montana's hand tight.

But Young was nowhere close to the stage and had even been the victim of a prank this week.

A 49er player whose identity has not been disclosed called Young recently to invite him to yesterday's ceremony -- a surprise because the two quarterbacks have had an icy relationship.

Young called his attorney, Leigh Steinberg, who called Montana's attorney, Peter Johnson of International Management Group.

Steinberg's message to Johnson was, "What's Steve's role in the ceremony?" to which Johnson's assistant called back and said, "He has no role, because he is not invited."

Steinberg, in fact, said that Montana's retirement -- considering it took place in San Francisco instead of Kansas City -- was almost humorous.

"It reminds me of dogs," Steinberg said. "Steve's marked out his place there, but Montana comes back, saying, 'Wait a minute.' "

It was actually IMG that staged the ceremony at Justin Herman Plaza, not the 49ers or Chiefs.

"We wanted him to retire from pro football, not from the 49ers or Chiefs," Johnson said, and it went off yesterday without a hitch -- except that the crowd was so large, Montana's four young children got lost temporarily among the masses.

Of course, the quarterback himself never showed a hint of a tear or of a breakdown, causing guest speaker John Madden, the Fox broadcaster, to say, "Just think if we could all be as cool as him, for one day."

Montana also set the record straight, saying that his wife, Jennifer, had not caused him to quit and that Marty Schottenheimer, the Chiefs' head coach, had not caused him to quit by overworking him. The Chiefs' president, Carl Peterson, who was present yesterday, even offered Montana more money to stay, but Montana simply told him he had no fire left to perform.

"It was almost a sigh of relief that took place for me," Montana said. "Almost a 'Gee, that's it.' "

He also said he would not change his mind, that -- even if the 49ers beg him unmercifully -- he will not coach.

"Coaching?" Montana said, sneaking a peek at his children. "Maybe T-ball."

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